Good Food, Good Prices, Good Memories at the Peppermill
September came and went, and we were all still numb in its brutal aftermath when, in October, we lost C.C.'s sunny Aunt Eileen. She slipped from us in a matter of days, in Good Samaritan Hospital, where she'd spent more than 20 years as a unit secretary. When word spread that she was dying, they came in a steady stream, nurses and doctors she'd known from their student days. They wept, they prayed, they shared memories of their warm, fun-loving colleague.
I suppose that's why we've come to Eileen's favorite watering hole tonight, as the year winds to a close. When I think of Eileen, I picture her sitting here, in the bar of The Peppermill (1301 York Road, Lutherville,  583-1107), sipping a gin and tonic, surrounded by the friends she had a gift for acquiring, wreathed in cigarette smoke (though she'd quit the habit years ago). If your lungs can take the hit, the bar serves pretty good food at bargain rates. (The dining room proper is smoke-free, but pricier.)
Armed with Aunt Eileen's favorite libations (gin and tonic for me, glass of Chardonnay for C.C.), we start our meal with a cup of Maryland crab soup ($3.50) and a cup of today's special soup, black bean ($2.25). Both conjure images of slow simmering. The crab is thick enough to stand a spoon in, jammed with barley and every kind of vegetable. Lots of Old Bay and lots of firm, fresh crab--lumps so heavy that they sink to the bottom of the cup. The black bean is equally hearty. It tastes like a vegetarian version, no ham or undertone of smoke. A bit of chopped red onion lends bite to the semi-firm beans.
The oyster Caesar salad ($9.95) sounds good but is too filling before a main course. C.C. agrees to share, though she's not a big fan of oysters. These win her over--half a dozen big ones, lightly breaded and quickly fried, over fresh romaine, homemade croutons, and a pleasing version of Caesar dressing. And I was right: It's not a salad, it's a meal.
I should say a word here, while waiting for our entrées to arrive, about the clientele. They're largely seniors, and they appear to know one another. You'll overhear conversations about golf, real estate, country clubs, and--oh, yes--the kind of medical testing associated with a graying population. Fortunately for us, a man at the neighboring table finishes recounting the details of his sigmoidoscopy just before our food arrives.
The talk turns to capital gains by the time our efficient server places before me an order of chicken Baltimore ($10.95), a boneless breast with many crab lumps and sliced button mushrooms, all sautéed in a light cream sauce and covered in melted mozzarella. The fowl is tender and the mix of flavors is good, but the gooey cheese adds nothing to an otherwise fine dish. C.C.'s orange roughy ($9.95, and don't fish have the most wonderful names?), a medium-sized fillet, is fresh and firm beneath a crisp coating of breadcrumbs and crushed almonds. I like the fish as is, but C.C. appreciates the side of citrus salsa, heavy on the pineapple. Between the two main courses, this is the one we'd both return for.
Entrées come with a choice of side--just one, though you can order another for a small fee. I try the stewed tomatoes, a straightforward version of the dish--no extraneous green pepper or bread cubes, and no sugar either. (Me, I like a little sugar.) C.C.'s baked potato is average in size and cooked to the point of creaminess, the best baked spud I've had in some time. She ignores the little cup of sour cream on the side and goes for a light sprinkling of pepper and salt instead.
Aunt Eileen wasn't one for desserts. That's how she kept her girlish figure, no doubt, but C.C. and I lost ours long ago. C.C. opts for her favorite guilty pleasure, one she rarely finds on a dessert menu these days: crème de menthe sundae ($3.95). There isn't much to say about it, except that a generous hand doled out the ice cream, the booze, and the whipped cream. I want something made in-house. Homemade apple pie ($3.95), served warm at my request, is high with thick-cut apple slices, still firm, flavored with cinnamon and judicious sugar. The crust has the telltale flakiness of lard, and the slice is sized for sharing, which I do.
We pay our bill and bid goodnight to The Peppermill and, as we do, we say goodbye to 2001 and Belly Up. A new year dawns, and with it a new explorer takes over as your guide to culinary Baltimore. For now, a last goodbye to Aunt Eileen, who always had a word of comfort for my darling and a ready smile for the world. And finally, reader, goodbye and many thanks to you.
Open 11 a.m.-midnight Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 1-10 p.m. Sunday.